In short

Neurotechnologies directly involve the human brain in monitoring, assessing, emulating, and manipulating its function. One such example are brain computer interfaces that can support more intuitive control of prosthetic devices and relay sensory information back to users. Some key ethical concerns include how we can ensure humans retain their free will and autonomy, and privacy issues regarding sensitive data.

More about Neurotechnologies

This technology family regroups a number of technologies that directly monitor, assess, mediate, manipulate and emulate the structure, functions, and capabilities of the human brain.

They are expected to change existing medical practices and redefine clinical and non-clinical monitoring and interventions. For example, patients with degenerative motor conditions could be treated more efficiently by using neuro-devices that enable neuron regeneration through the stimulation of certain brain zones. Such neuro-devices are currently an object of research for treating Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, the consequences of strokes and severe trauma, and many other conditions.

Nevertheless, neurotechnology products and services trigger concerns, among others, about personal data privacy management, integrity and responsibility, and potential off-label and misuse of such technology. They also raise further issues around what has been called “neuro-determinism”: people assuming that our minds are our brains, whereas we are the product of so much more, including a lifetime of experiences.

  • Deep brain stimulation and adaptive deep brain stimulation (DBS and aDBS)

    This technique involves placing electrodes in specific areas of the brain with the aim to regulate abnormal impulses or influence certain cells and chemicals in the brain. Addressing this can treat movement disorders, such as those associated with Parkinson’s disease, but it’s also being tested for behavioural or psychiatric conditions such as depression and schizophrenia.
  • Optogenetics

    Optogenetics can help identify neural circuits and networks by revealing the interconnections between parts of the neuron networks. Optogenetics can also be used to intervene in the neuron circuits by inhibition or excitation, thus manipulating neurological activity. Currently optogenetics is mostly used in animal research.
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with Machine learning (ML)

    Various neuroimaging techniques, for example functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), and machine learning (ML) creates new avenues for breaches of mental privacy. fMRI is used to collect data about the brain activity of a subject, and ML can be used to train on that data, provide predictions about brain activity or infer mental contents from brain activity.
  • Brain computer interface (BCI)

    Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs) are a branch of neurotechnology that seeks to translate brain processes that relate to thought and action into desired outcomes such as moving a prosthetic limb.
  • Functional near infrared signal (fNIRS)

    Functional near infrared signal (fNIRS) is a method of measuring brain activity by detecting changes in blood oxygenation. This can allow researchers to measure brain activity in real-time and is non-invasive, meaning it does not require surgery or the use of contrast agents. fNIRS is also portable, meaning it can be used in a variety of settings, including in the home or in the workplace.

    Ethical analysis

    ‘Ethics by design’ is at the core of TechEthos. It was necessary to identify the broad array of values and principles at stake in Neurotechnologies, to be able to include them from the very beginning of the process of research and development. Based on our ethical analysis, we will propose how to enhance or adjust existing ethical codes, guidelines or frameworks.

    Core ethical dilemmas

    Neurodeterminism, free will, human autonomy and responsibility

    Neurotechnologies open up questions about the concept of free will and, therefore, of autonomy and responsibility. Neuroscience and the resulting neurotechnologies have contributed experimental arguments to the discussion of free will, leading some authors to argue that free will is an illusion and that a radical change to our legal system based on free will is necessary.

    Should neurotechnologies be used to enhance cognitive abilities?

    Some applications of neurotechnologies can be used to enhance cognitive abilities of humans, triggering a host of arguments in favour of and against neurological enhancement.

    These core ethical dilemmas are tackled in depth in the ‘Analysis of Ethical Issues’ report.

    Read the report

    Applications and use cases

    Predictive diagnostics: future selves and agency

    Part of medical applications of neurotechnologies involve prediction techniques, which can be used for preventive or therapeutic reasons, such as using biomarker techniques to detect early Alzheimer’s. Similar diagnostics might become possible for other neurological diseases due to neurotechnologies. The ethical question is how such diagnosis should be addressed with as long as 20 years ahead of first symptoms and with no present or foreseeable treatment.

    Entertainment: addiction and personal development

    Neurotechnologies offer a way to personalize marketing strategies to consumer brain activity, which can be effective but can also lead to addictive behaviours. For example, neuromarketing might look to identify brain profiles that respond to certain marketing strategies or are predisposed to addiction.

    More applications and use cases are tackled in the ‘Analysis of Ethical Issues’ report.

    Read the report

    Existing ethical codes, frameworks and guidelines

    At this stage of the project, TechEthos partners have completed a scan of ethical guidance (in the form of codes, guidelines and frameworks) that already exist specifically for Neurotechnologies or which are considered relevant in ethical discussions on this technology family. The following is a short summary of the findings of the ‘Methodology for ethical analysis, scan results of existing ethical codes and guidelines’ report, which can be accessed in full via the button below.

    Ethical codes are referenced by several academic and research organisations as well as one intergovernmental organisation. The diversity of approaches is notable, from inviting companies to self-regulate to a set of clearly articulated principles to founding a new set of codes (such as the NeuroRights Initiative proposed by the Data Science Institute at Columbia University).

    Ethical frameworks for Neurotechnologies were one of the most prolific areas investigated for the report, with several references from academia and other research organisations. Some authors focus on identifying gaps in existing frameworks and recommending further extensions. Others call upon neurotechnology ethical frameworks to be cross-fertilised with those from related fields, while some believe this might not be sufficient or appropriate, and some novel approaches are also available for consideration.

    Ethical guidelines found in the literature span a range of different levels, from the efforts of specific research teams, to national efforts such as those of the Australian Brain Alliance, to regional and international efforts such as those of the European Union’s ethics guidelines for AI. Whether or not the current guidelines in place for medical devices are a good source of inspiration and principles for neuro-devices is an ongoing debate in the literature.

    Read the report

    Legal analysis

    While no international or EU law directly addresses or explicitly mentions neurotechnologies, many aspects are subject to international and EU law. Below, you can explore the legal frameworks and issues relevant to Neurotechnologies and read about the next steps in our legal analysis.

    Human rights law

    Neurotechnologies have the potential to impact human rights in many ways, both positive and negative. In relation to some rights in particular context, neurotechnologies have the potential to enhance enjoyment of rights, such as when neurotechnologies provide innovative treatment options that improve health and positively impact the right to health. But in other situations, such as the use of neurotechnologies in courtroom in ways that violate the right to fair trial and the prohibition on self-incrimination, neurotechnologies interferes and may even violate human rights.

    Our report looked at the international and EU laws and policies relevant for specific human rights, considering key issues, gaps and challenges. It also considers the trend in human rights law towards the realisation of new human rights to explicitly address emerging challenges posed by neurotechnologies. Collectively known as ‘neurorights’, these proposed new rights are cognitive liberty, mental privacy, mental integrity, and psychological continuity.

    Read the report

    Privacy and data protection law

    Neurotechnologies offer the opportunity to gain unique insights into the workings of the human brain. Whilst initially intended for clinical and research purposes, increased commercialisation had led to various market-led efforts to develop brain-computer interfaces available for consumers. Moreover, such consumer-based neurotechnologies are use in conjunction with big data and advanced machine learning techniques for greater effectiveness and prediction and analysis. This can imply the collection and storage of personal brain data on a vast scale, thereby potentially exacerbating the risk of interference with rights to privacy and data protection of users.

    Against this background, our work analyses the key issue of the status of brain data obtained through the use of neurotechnologies, specifically assessing whether, and if so how, such data is protected under the relevant international and EU law.

    Read the report

    Next steps in our legal analysis

    TechEthos has analysed so far the obligations of States (for international law) and/or Member States (for EU law) and the rights of private individuals under those laws.

    The obligations of private individuals and entities will be the focus on a report on the legal frameworks at the national level (forthcoming Winter 2022).

    The work of these two reports, and the gaps and challenges in existing legal frameworks identified by this work, will form the basis for legal and policy recommendations in the TechEthos project in the coming months (forthcoming Spring 2023).

    Societal analysis

    This type of analysis is helping us bring on board the concerns of different groups of actors and look at technologies from different perspectives.

    Expert perspectives

    TechEthos asked researchers, innovators, as well as technology, ethical, legal and economic experts, to consider several future scenarios for our selected technologies and provide their feedback regarding attitudes, proposals and solutions.

    Read the policy note
    Societal perspectives

    A series of events such as science cafés and workshops with local research and technology players will ask the public about the attitudes, values and concerns triggered by future scenarios for our selected technologies.

    Events kicked off in the Summer 2022; discover the ‘science café’ format in our news article.

    Read the article
    Media discourse

    Media discourse on technologies both reflects and shapes public perceptions. As such, it is a powerful indicator of societal awareness and acceptance of these technologies. TechEthos carried out an analysis of the news stories published in 2020 and 2021 on our three technology families in 13 EU and non-EU countries (Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, UK, and USA). This used state-of-the-art computational tools to collect, clean and analyse the data.

    For neurotechnologies, we could observe that the most frequently mentioned keyword is “cyborg”, appearing in more than 21% of the stories collected for this family of technologies. This indicates that public awareness of this technology, as reflected in the media discourse, is highly dominated by this notion.

    Another interesting finding is the frequent appearance in the news stories related to neurotechnologies of Elon Musk and/or Neuralink, i.e., the neurotechnology company that Musk co-founded (they are mentioned in almost 35% of the stories collected). This suggests that discussions on this technology are highly dominated by Musk and his activities in the area or, to put it differently, that neurotechnology is often discussed in the media in relation to what Musk does in the area. Here as well, such a strong presence in the media discourse indicates a great role of the businessman in the public awareness and perception of neurotechnologies.

    Read the report
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    TechEthos has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no. 101006249. This website and its contents reflect only their authors' view. The Research Executive Agency and the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.